Proximity to Impact

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Lisa Y. Livshin

The world is up-ended. As psychologists, we would say that the world is dysregulated now. Emotional dysregulation is when people are unable to control or regulate their emotional reactions to “provocative stimuli”. A pandemic is the most provocative stimulus we’ve ever seen. With a specialization in disaster work, I observe my own difficulty self-regulating right now. I find myself tearing up out of nowhere, experiencing unfamiliar anxiety, and wondering if I have COVID-19 every time I feel a tickle in my throat. This is a collective, national trauma in the making and I am again, one of those affected. Just like with 9-11 and the Boston Marathon Bombing – I am no longer the removed disaster psychologist looking in from the outside. Proximity to Impact is a factor we consider when assessing potential trauma. We are all at Ground Zero.

Critical Incident responders break disasters down in to phases. During the Pre-Impact phase we receive some advanced notice about the impending disaster. Last week when the pandemic was announced, we entered this phase. For me, it was time to do safety planning and gather resources just like I had always taught others to do. As I mobilized, I knew these tasks were integral to the Pre-Impact phase. Mundane errands like ordering food, wiping down surfaces, and doing an inventory of supplies, gave me a sense of agency. This is what these behaviors are supposed to provide in this phase. Like so many others, accessing medications for my family, diapers for my granddaughter and other provisions, gave me a sense of control in an out of control situation. I did this while tearing up – thinking about all the people without resources to obtain adequate supplies. I felt gratitude in a new way.

A few days passed and I realized that what I thought was the Pre-Impact phase had already become the Impact Phase.

COVID-19 had entered the United States and the science of contagion was in full force. A staggering number of people were still not fully comprehending the gravity of the virus. Those of us who understand what it means to flatten the curve, were shocked by images of college students frolicking on beaches during spring break.

This is not unusual behavior in large scale disasters. People may minimize the situation or enter a state of denial because current reality is overwhelming. They may become numb and shut down in a crisis. Many need to deflect authority and have the “no one’s going to tell me what to do” mentality.

Having a president who minimizes our collective crisis has made the national denial worse. It’s prevented people from mobilizing when lives depended on it.

Already I see the breaches in families when members differ on how to remain healthy. It’s in my own house as my daughter and son-in-law disagree over deciding what their 2 year old can touch on walks. My relative is a therapist who is upset with me right now. I told her how

irresponsible I thought she was for continuing to see patients in her home office. Lesson learned – I cannot be a disaster worker to family and friends who don’t ask for my input. It can be difficult to remain mute when I know from my work that people’s mental health may be impacted by how they respond during the disaster impact phase. How we behave emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally during this stage, will affect our post-impact functioning and long-term recovery.

Today life is feeling surreal to this disaster psychologist. Throughout the day, I hear the news, check my supplies again, and tear up, as I come to understand that the Reconstruction Phase is looking further and further away.